Glaciers – before we get into it, let’s get a little definition of the thing. According to all those geology folks, they are essentially slow moving rivers of ice, formed at high altitude where the temperature is cold enough for the water to freeze.
To us, they are an incredible phenomenon to behold. Especially when carving, as great chunks of ice topple from the ice shelves and crash into the water below. The spectacle of the cycle of nature in action.
But it’s not all fun and games, not now the cycle looks to have been sped up to unsustainable levels by global warming. While they might be simply awesome sights to us, they mean so much more to the communities that live beneath them. Not to mention the plants, animals and other wildlife that depend on their existence. Their destruction means a lot more than a few less opportunities for holiday snaps.
It’s scary to see how little of these amazing natural sights are left since they started being recorded as little as a century ago. With that said, here are 14 of the world’s most incredible glaciers that, if they continue at the rate they are going, won’t be around for too much longer.
1. The Antarctic
Along with Greenland, the Antarctic contains 99% of all the world’s glacial ice. So there’s no doubt that it’s here you’ll witness some of the most incredible ice formations that you’re ever likely to see. Sadly, it’s shedding around 160 billion tonnes of ice a year – an amount that is impossible to replace.
This region is now becoming a popular tourist destination, but rather than adding to the problem, the area is promoting ‘responsible tourism’.
Operators look to minimalise the impact on the environment while educating people on not just the problems the region faces, but the natural beauty exclusive to the area too. If you decide to go, make sure you try the kayaking expedition to the towering ice shelves and visit the Emperor Penguins, which only make their home in the Antarctic.
2. Eqi Glacier, Greenland
The other heavy hitter in the glacial world. Greenland’s popularity as a tourist destination has grown incredibly over the last few years, precisely for of the incredible ice sheets that cover it.
A favourite is the Eqi glacier. One of the most active glaciers in Greenland, it’s a rarity as it’s still advancing rather than receding. As a result, it’s constantly carving, dropping huge blocks of ice into the fjord water below. The splashes are so impressive they will leave you feeling infinitesimally small.
Still, if you fancy yourself a bit of a daredevil you can get up close and personal. Just remember that hiking to the ice cap will take around a day from the popular tourist town, Ilulissat, so you’ll need to book into one of the fjord-side lodges before you go.
3. Glacier National Park, Montana, USA
Back in 1850, the area that now makes up Glacier National Park had 150 active glaciers. By its latest count it has only 35 named glaciers remaining, 25 of which are considered active.
It’s worth checking those that remain while you still can. You should maybe hurry though. The Sperry glacier has receded from covering an area as big as 800 acres in 1901 to less than 250 acres today. Still, it’s beautiful and the park offers some spectacular hiking routes. It’s also an area where you can see some truly unique and incredible wildlife, including mountain goats and even grizzly bears.
Book a stay at Glacier National Park
4. Quelccaya Ice Cap, Peru
Quelccaya is the largest ice cap in the tropics. It’s also contracting by more than 600 ft a year and experts estimate that it will be gone by 2100. With it shrinking at that rate, it’s worth jumping in there sooner rather than later.
Ayni-Peru, famous for their Inca Trail treks, now offer guide led expeditions to the glacier from Cusco. It’s only a short three day expedition, but it is fairly challenging thanks to the terrain you’ll be covering and the altitude.
It is worth it though. The views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers are beautiful, you can get a good look at the ice shelves and will pass grazing llamas, alpacas and other wonderful Peruvian mountain wildlife that are all fed from the fruits of the Quelccya ice cap.
Book your stay in Cusco
5. Fox and Franz Josef, New Zealand
This pair of glaciers is unique owing to its low altitude. It sits less than 300 meters above sea level amongst all the lush greenery of a temperate rainforest, rather than on the high rocks of a mountain peak, feeding the Waiho River. It’s also part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site Park, which is home to a whole host of unique wildlife.
Since it’s so low, it’s probably one of the easiest glaciers to hike. Still, if you’d rather not walk you can do the trip by helicopter and check out this incredible sight from the air.
Although the glaciers aren’t shrinking at the rate of some of the others on this list, it’s expected to lose 38% of its mass by 2100.
6. Pasterze, Austria
The biggest of Austria’s glaciers, it sits at the foot of the towering Glossglockner, the country’s largest mountain. It’s a popular destination for tourists due to it being close to popular lakeside resort, Zell am See. With its busy visitor’s centre on the Grossglocknerstrasse mountain road, it’s one of the easier ones to trek. Still, glacier is currently receding by a ridiculous 33 ft per year, so if you want to see it in all its magnificent glory, you better get down there soon.
Book your stay at Zell am See.
7. Perito Moreno, Argentina
One of the most important sights in Argentine Patagonia, Perito Moreno is fed by the South Patagonian ice field in the Andes. Unlike most, this glacier is actually advancing, rather than shrinking. It’s also one of the most accessible in Patagonia – there are three viewing areas allowing travellers some stunning close-ups.
8. Hubbard, Alaska, USA
The longest tidewater glacier in Alaska, it extends for a massive 76 miles from its source on Mt. Logan. As it’s also advancing, it’s another one that’s actively ‘calving’. Like the Eqi in Greenland, its ice shelves can be reached by boat or on foot and the explosions from the water as the ice blocks fall make for an exciting spectacle – not to forget the unnerving creaking noise which the indigenous Tlingit people have called ‘white thunder.’
9. Athabasca, Canada
Straddling the continental divide, this glacier is part of the Rocky Mountains’ Columbia Icefield. As mighty as it is, it’s already receded to under half its original size and continues to recede now. It’s also been reported as one of the most dangerous glaciers to explore. People have died by falling into deep crevasses hidden in the glacier, which is why areas are blocked off with barriers. Now with that doom and gloom out of the way, the glacier and the valley it’s cut into the mountain are still a mammoth sight to behold and well worth the trip.
10. Vatnajokull, Iceland
By way of ratio this glacier is humungous. Covering 8% of the country, it is one of the largest in Europe. It also lies in a wild wonderland of a landscape, surrounded by active volcanoes, ice cave and hot springs.
The glacier itself can be hiked via the national park of the same name. Guided tours are available daily, from the short family-friendly treks to the slightly more intense (though wholly manageable) half day tours.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, it’s also the ‘object of the world’s longest sight line’. Unfortunately it’s receding like far too many glaciers, so who knows how long it’ll hold that record for.
11. Yulong, China
Unlike the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, this glacier sits up high. Real high. So high that the climb to the final observation deck often requires the use of oxygen, making it pretty much inaccessible to all but the most experienced climbers.
Still, it might not be there for too long. Situated in the Yunnan Province of China, it too is receding at an alarming rate. And its disappearance won’t just effect the view. It’s a major source of water for the region and any significant increase in meltwater could cause the flood-prone Yulong River to burst its banks.
12. Biafo, Pakistan
This remote glacier in the Karakoram Mountain Range is just about accessible via a lengthy hike along the edge of Snow Lake. It sure isn’t the easiest trek, providing several days of very strenuous boulder hopping. But if you can make it, it’s a truly unforgettable journey offering incredible views throughout. You can also see evidence of wildlife throughout the trek, such as brown bears, snow leopards and ibexes.
13.Drang-Drung, Himalayas, India
Probably the second largest of the Himalayan glaciers, after the Siachen, this is probably one of the easiest to get to. You can reach it by car from the popular city of Srinagar, or even directly from Srinagar airport and it’s a beautiful sight to behold.
But its beauty belies the delicate part it plays in the local river system. Being that it feeds the Doda River, its increased recession could one day lead to the river running dry completely, resulting in drought in the region. This gives us the all too brutal reality of how glacial melt can affect local communities.
14.Furtwangler, Mt. Kilimanjaro
And finally, one of the most iconic glaciers in the world, the Furtwangler. The snows of Kilimanjaro were made famous years ago by Hemmingway, but here, too, the ice is receding rapidly. In fact it’s been reported that between 1912 and 2000, 82% of the ice disappeared. It’s expected that by 2020, all the glaciers on top of the mountain will be gone.
Importance of Glaciers
The glacial ice across the world combined makes up the largest reservoir of freshwater on the planet. So much so that if it were all to melt tomorrow, the water levels would rise by a whopping 70 meters. It’s not hard to work out the effects such a rise in sea levels would have on the world.
But it’s not just on a global scale. Glaciers in more temperate climates start to melt and produce streams during the warmer months, before regenerating during the cold weather season and starting the process over. There are communities across the globe that rely on local glaciers’ meltwater – such as in Peru – for clean drinking water, crop irrigation and power. If these were to disappear, it would cause major problems.
On top of that, there are the dangers of floods. The rate of the glacial melt continues to increase, there will be bigger risk of glacial lakes overflowing and the rivers they feed bursting their banks. This leads to the kinds of catastrophic natural disasters like we’ve seen in India and elsewhere.
It’s important that while visiting these incredible natural sites, they don’t just become another Instagram. As responsible travellers, we should think about their protection and preservation too.
Want to get a proper look at these glaciers while you still can? Plan you visit and book your accommodation with HostelBookers now.
Have you witnessed any of these glaciers or know of any other amazing ice sheets around the world? Tell us about them in the comments…
Thanks to Kimberly Vardeman, Liam Quinn, Kristine Riskær, Lee Coursey, joka2000, Jordi Brió, blmiers2, Robert Raines, peanutian, Etienne, daveonhols, Black Zero, Poonam Agarwal and Mouser Williams for the most excellent image. Please note all were under Creative Commons Licence at time of publishing.